The one question to rule them all: What problem are you trying to solve?

I find myself asking this question more than any other. I ask myself. I ask my students. I ask my clients. I ask my family. I ask others to ask it. It really is the question.

Some people balk at a word problem. For them, I talk about the problem as an “opportunity to capture” or a “challenge to overcome.” However they approach it, they are solving a problem and they want to take actions that turn the world they have into the world they think they want.

Solving the Wrong Problem

We’ve all done great work that solved the wrong problem. We’ve created software to solve a logistics problem that turned out to be a communication problem. We’ve purchased training to solve performance problems that turned out to be a leadership problem. We’ve pursued education and degrees to solve a getting-a-job problem that turned out to be a curiosity-driven learning problem. Choosing the wrong problem means ending up with an excellent solution — to the wrong problem, of course — that fails us and doesn’t bring the world we have closer to the world we want.

Solving the Right Problem

Solving the right problem is impossible, always, for two reasons: (1) imperfect knowledge (part of our being human); and (2) change over time. When faced with a problem to solve, no amount of research will help us understand everything we need to know to see the problem perfectly. Even if we could grasp all the data, we have another problem: other humans. Nothing gives us access to their behavioral engines. And even if we could grasp the data and decrypt the humans, a mere second later it all changes, because the world loves change, creating new relationships, new ways that systems adapt, and new reasons driving human action and decision.

Asking the Right Question

On the other hand, when we ask the right question… I was on a little yacht in the open sea. It crashed. How do you crash in the open sea? Big wave meets small boat. Small boat meets underside of big wave. During the storm, I watched wayfinding in action as the captain, Jimmy, struggled to pilot us to port. Each passing swell dropped us into a frothy trough, like being lowered into a deep bucket, and Jimmy kept guiding up and out of the bucket before it collapsed on us. He rode the troughs by dancing through turns, gunning the engines, then correcting our course. When the distance between swells closed suddenly, we didn’t make it out of the bucket. I didn’t know that the technical term for our crash was “broaching”, and that broaching a boat can be deadly. 

“What problem am I trying to solve?” isn’t a once-and-done question. Rather, it’s a way of selecting a destination and setting a course, moving us toward our destination, and asking us over and over to make the necessary tiny (and sometimes not-so-tiny) course corrections along the way, which helps us reframe everything when the big wave goes right over the boat. 

Every design project asks this question — “What problem am I trying to solve?” — thousands of times in as thousands of ways. Each design method asks this question by helping us ask questions about people, systems, services, materials, and more variables, constants and mysteries. People who work with designers then say, “We call it something different, but after working with you, I see that I’ve been doing design for ages.” They feel that way because they’ve been asking the right question over and over.

Choosing the questions, when to ask them, and how to ask them — these all move us from from swell to swell and through the troughs. Choosing is also how we reveal better questions that move us closer to our destination. If you chose poorly, try a different question or approach to answering it. You won’t find yourself battered and bloody, sitting in bits of yacht. And to Jimmy: Cheers for steering us through all that with no dying. 

Practice Asking

Choose a challenge. Describe the world you have and the world you want. Describe the difference between those two worlds. This difference is the problem you are trying to solve. Now sum up the problem by phrasing it as a question: “How might we…?” Try several versions of how-might-we questions. After doing that, your problem is selecting one how-might-we question to focus on. Then, planning how to solve the selected question becomes your next problem to solve. I’ve created a simple Ask Like a Designer Thinking Tool to help you break down your next challenge and choose the problem you’re trying to solve. Download it here.

As you work on your problem, you’re breaking it down. People say they are doing research, prototyping, or planning, when what they are really doing is solving research problems, solving prototyping problems, and solving planning problems. To design is to practice asking, in a thousand ways, “What problem am I trying to solve?”, then being with your answer long enough to ask the next question: Is this problem worth solving?

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